TGU Debates: The future of the Italian national team

We at The Gentleman Ultra spend a lot of time talking and writing about Italian football’s past. However, on this occasion, we decided to focus on the future. For the debut of ‘TGU Debates’, the editorial team came together to discuss a number of important topics surrounding the Italy national team.

Ahead of the Azzurri’s friendly against England, we discussed Mario Balotelli, Luigi Di Biagio, 2018 World Cup failure, the art of defending, Italian player development, the influence of foreign players in Serie A, and the national team’s future stars.

We hope you enjoy the debate, and please do join in on Twitter.

Has Mario Balotelli failed Italy, or has Italy failed Mario Balotelli?

LUCA HODGES-RAMON: Italy have failed Mario Balotelli. Since the Azzurri’s group stage exit at Brazil 2014, after which he was shamefully scapegoated for the side’s collective travails, Balo has been consigned to the scrapheap. This was somewhat understandable at first, especially given Mario’s dip in form and Antonio Conte’s preference for selecting no frills personnel. But his performances since joining Nice have merited a recall. In terms of talent, and indeed achievements (remember Balo has a Champions League, Serie A and Premier League title to his name), few of Italy’s forwards compare.

He has constantly battled adversity in Italy, putting up with racism, ignorance and intolerance, which has at times threatened to derail his career. And yet he has done nothing but wear his heart on his sleeve for the Azzurri, as his tears in the final of Euro 2012 attested. As Gianluigi Buffon recently commented, it is time Balotelli is given his chance to prove that he has matured, to show that he can become a champion and show that consistency.

BLAIR NEWMAN: I think Italy has failed Balotelli. I remember when he re-joined AC Milan on loan in 2015/16, there was a lot of discussion about his attitude, but he didn’t show anything other than commitment to the cause. He didn’t have his best season goals-wise, but he worked hard. Then he goes to Nice and scores for fun for two seasons, and he’s still being spoken of like a child. [National team caretaker Head Coach] Luigi Di Biagio’s recent comments about Balo needing to do ‘more than score’ left me dumbfounded – it’s as if each Italian national team Coach just makes up a new excuse not to call up one of their most experienced and prolific strikers. At a time when Italy desperately need a bit of flair and ingenuity up front, to ignore Balotelli for a raw prospect like Patrick Cutrone is utterly ridiculous.

EMMET GATES: Balotelli has failed Italy. It has to be remembered that under Cesare Prandelli, he was considered a pivotal player, one of the few guaranteed starters. It worked at Euro 2012, and in particular in the semi-final against Germany where he arguably played the best game of his career, but then you have the flipside to that coin, at the World Cup two years later where he was a divisive figure in the dressing room, and along with Antonio Cassano, completely destroyed the group dynamic. It was telling that in the aftermath of their exit, senior players such as Gigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi called him out in all but name in interviews following that fateful game against Uruguay.

Prandelli put so much faith in Balotelli to lead the Azzurri, and Balotelli ultimately let him down. You can take his form at Nice into consideration, but one has to seriously consider the level of Ligue 1. If Balotelli was playing this well at, say, Sampdoria or Fiorentina, the argument could be made to bring him back into the fold, but for the minute, he doesn’t deserve to be included.

NEIL MORRIS: Why always Mario? Whenever he is involved, it becomes about him. Some of this is his own doing but much of this is also down to the media and the fans. As a result, he is always set up to be either the hero or the scapegoat, there is no in between. When he is in peak form, this baggage is worth carrying but otherwise, it is not worth the risk. That’s why I think this period in exile from the national team was inevitable. But there should always be a way back, and based on current form, he must be in contention.

I think that he often hides behind a mask of immaturity, mainly because of what he has been through in his life, and behind that there is a serious and committed player who could add value to the national team. He needs to show that more than ever now. But he needs to prove his value in the dressing room as well as on the field of play.

To answer the question. I don’t think either has failed the other. Mario has forged a successful career against a background of adversity and to label him a failure at any level would be unfair. And at national level, it is very hard for Coaches to accommodate a player like him unless what they bring on the field eclipses every other factor. Maybe we need to ask that question at the end of his career.

Is Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup a one-off event or the start of something more long-term?

NEIL: For me, the wrong Coach was hired in the first place – everything after that was inevitable. This was not just about the players or a lack of talent coming through, it was about incompetence at the top. And that’s where the rebuilding needs to start. Only then can we start looking at other factors.

LUCA: I think Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup represented a nadir in what has been a pretty dismal decade. Barring performances at Euro 2012 and 2016 (the latter in large part down to the brilliance of Antonio Conte), the era has been punctuated by bad decision-making from the top down, which culminated in the hiring of Giampiero Ventura and the FIGC’s inertia when it was clear Ventura needed firing. In fact, I would flip this question around and frame it in terms of the beginning of a new era. We have reached ground zero and now is the time to re-build with a long-term strategy in mind.

BLAIR: Italy’s failure to reach the World Cup was a huge shock to a lot of people, myself included, so I can’t honestly say that I saw it coming. And, as bad as they were, they only lost out in a play-off to an extremely well-organised Swedish side. With the benefit of hindsight, I view that defeat as the culmination of something that probably started while Conte was in charge.

Conte did an excellent job, but he also ignored a huge amount of talent, particularly the young and inexperienced players. Essentially, Conte’s tactics at Euro 2016 papered over the cracks in an ageing and, let’s be truthful, qualitatively very poor squad. And all of that made the transition period really hard for his successor, Ventura, to manage. Whoever is appointed next will have the good fortune to work with players such as Lorenzo Insigne, Jorginho, Alessio Romagnoli and Federico Chiesa, who I feel can take the country back to the top of the international game.

EMMET: I believe it’s a one-off. It’s worth bearing in mind that they also failed to qualify for Euro ’92, and came back to make it to the final of USA ’94, albeit with a far superior group of players than they can muster currently. The failure to reach Russia is merely a blip, Italy have a young group emerging such as Cutrone, Mattia Caldara, Andrea Conti, Andrea Belotti and so on. I’m not overly concerned at any long-term malaise in the Italian game.

Giorgio Chiellini feels the art of defending is being ruined in today’s game. Do you see this as a problem for the Italian national team in terms of Italy’s tactical culture and heritage being eroded?

EMMET: I think to an extent, you look at Chiellini and think that he’s the last of that quintessential old school Italian defender, the rugged take-no-prisoners style that Italy seemed to have an abundance of for decades. As he himself noted, all defenders now are expected to be able to play the ball, and even this has enveloped modern goalkeepers. When I see Caldara, Rugani, Romagnoli and so on, I don’t see a new Chiellini, a new Gentile, a new Ferrara. I see a lot of Alessandro Nestas. Which is hardly a bad thing, but for every smooth Nesta, you need a Chiellini next to you.

NEIL: No, if anything, it is part of a vicious circle. Because of defenders like Chiellini, who have perfected their art, others teams have been forced to adapt and play another way. As a result, the game has changed, it always does, and the art of defending has become more intricate than ever before. It is now up to Italian defenders to embrace that challenge and from what I can see, the younger generation are. Besides, being good with your feet and being able to distribute the ball intelligently does not make you incapable of putting in a great tackle, being sharp with your positioning or laying your body on the line at the crucial moment.

LUCA: Chiellini is certainly putting his finger on a growing trend in modern football, although I believe Italy’s defensive ‘heritage’ – if we must use that word – remains intact. If we look at some of the youngsters set to take the mantle from Chiellini et al, for instance Rugani, Caldara and Romagnoli, they certainly reflect the modern defender in terms of their confidence in possession and ability to start attacks. However, they have all shown signs that they possess the grittier component of defending and most importantly, that unyielding passion to make a last-ditch block or goal-stopping slide tackle. In terms of Italy’s culture and heritage, I believe with the right decision-making from the top, this shouldn’t be too much of a concern.

BLAIR: I hear what Chiellini is saying, but I don’t necessarily agree that it’s an issue. Today’s defenders are required to do different things simply because of the way tactics have evolved. Now they have to be good on the ball, able to drive forward, able to pick a pass. It’s actually quite surprising to hear Chiellini bemoaning this as he’s quite proficient in each of the above aspects. I don’t see any young Italian defender with his aggression, but that doesn’t mean Italy is losing its defensive nous. Romagnoli, Caldara, Rugani are all under the age of 24 – they can fill the long-term void left when Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci join Andrea Barzagli in international retirement.

Rugani (right) could one day replace Chiellini in Italy’s defence

To what extent is Italy’s failure to reach the 2018 World Cup down to a decline in individual talent produced on the peninsula?

BLAIR: Again, I don’t think Italy lack individual talent, I just think that some of the best players have been ignored for too long. I have discussions with football-loving friends here in Scotland who don’t think Insigne is special! If people outside of Italy don’t know how good Insigne is, something is wrong. Italy still produce top talent, but it’s irrelevant if their path to the national team is blocked off by tacticians with rigid ideas as to how their team should line up. Hopefully the next national team boss will be a little more open-minded.

EMMET: Italy hasn’t been producing the same quality of players they had available to them 20 years ago in a very long time. Across the board, Italy has stuttered in producing world class players, especially in the No.10 position – a player that is historically so revered in Italy, has all but disappeared. Where are all the Baggios; the Tottis; the Riveras?

I don’t know the stats off-hand, but Italy has some of the highest rising obesity levels in Europe, which suggests to me that younger generations of Italians aren’t playing football as much as they did in, say, the past 30 years or so. It was pitiful to look at the Azzurri squad for those crunch ties against Sweden and see so little creativity or genuine world class talent. It was a sea of mediocrity, and that’s being generous. And the kids that do play, especially at that teenager level, are conditioned to get a result, and not to play with freedom and develop their creativity and innovation.

Italy is in dire need of overhauling their footballing ethos. Only in Italy could a player like Rino Gattuso, as hard-working as he was, gain more caps for Italy than Roberto Baggio. The mentality simply has to change.

NEIL: There was enough talent available to take Italy to the World Cup. In that respect, the buck stops with the appointment of the Coach and therefore the FIGC. And let’s not forget that Italy may have avoided being drawn in a group alongside Spain had they taken their friendly schedule more seriously. However, that is not to say there hasn’t been a dip in talent over the last six years or so. Whether this is part of a long-term problem, I am not convinced. In fact, there are reasons to be excited about the next generation coming through.

LUCA: It’s a tricky question, because we can’t pretend that the Italy squad at Ventura’s disposal wasn’t good enough to qualify for a World Cup, despite the misfortune of being drawn with Spain. That being said, the team that went to Euro 2016 was undoubtedly – in terms of talent – the worst Italy squad at a major tournament in memory. When you look at Italy’s youth teams (and even current squad) there are certainly promising youngsters breaking through: Gianluigi Donnarumma, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Roberto Gagliardini, Bryan Cristante, Chiesa, Caldara, Rugani, Cutrone, Belotti and plenty of others. But at the same time, Italy’s talent pool has undeniably dwindled since their last Word Cup victory in 2006, which I guess leads nicely onto the next question.

Can an argument really be made, as it has been by some, that the percentage of foreign players in Serie A is hampering the development of Italian youngsters?

LUCA: In terms of the presence of overseas players in Serie A, last I checked the number was situated at 52 per cent in 2017 – which put the division higher than La Liga and Ligue 1, but below the Bundesliga and Premier League. Clearly there is no causal relation between ‘too many foreigners’ and not enough chances ‘for our youngsters’ in Germany, a nation who arguably boast the most exciting young squad in the world.

Unfortunately, following the Azzurri’s failure to qualify for Russia 2018, I think there was an impulsive backlash in some quarters which felt the need to find an ‘easy’ panacea for Italy’s ills. And mirroring the current socio-political environment in the country, some decided that this failure was the fault of foreigners who were blocking the path of Italian youngsters. Certainly, there is a debate to be had here, but I fear that ignorance and intolerance clouds the judgement of some. For me, this talk about quotas on foreign players is certainly not the answer – but more money does need to be invested in the youth academies of Italian clubs, which pales in comparison to the amount their Spanish counterparts spend for example.

BLAIR: I don’t think this argument holds much weight, if any at all. I understand the frustrations of seeing home-grown players being overlooked and I’m sure that it is a genuine concern for certain specific clubs in Italy, but it isn’t a nationwide issue. Just look at Atalanta since Gian Piero Gasperini came in, or at Milan over the last few years. Thanks to those teams we’ve seen Davide Calabria, Andrea Petagna, Caldara, Gagliardini, Conti, Cristante, Donnarumma and Cutrone come through. I’m sure I’m forgetting others too!

EMMET: Don’t buy it at all; if they were good enough, they’d play. Italy had a wealth of talent in the ‘90s when Serie A housed all of the greatest players in the world, to such an extent that they could afford to leave Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini at home for USA ’94, Baggio and Beppe Signori for Euro 96, Gianfranco Zola and Fabrizio Ravanelli for France ’98.

NEIL: An article in Marca last year showed that 52 per cent of Serie A players were foreign. Compare that to 56.1 per cent in Portugal and 53 per cent in Germany, who won Euro 2016 and the 2014 World Cup respectively, and you see that the argument does not stack up. At 64 per cent, the English Premier League is the most diluted of all, yet Gareth Southgate’s men qualified for Russia with ease. It just goes to show that well-developed players from any nation can thrive in European football.

Listen: TGU Podcast (E2): Exiles in Italy & storm clouds in Bergamo

Luigi Di Biagio is in charge for the time being, but is he the best option going forward? If you were in charge of the FIGC, who would you appoint?

NEIL: The national team does not need an Auteur, it needs a Coach who is an organiser and a selector who can choose a system that suits the players rather that forcing players to adapt to his own personal vision. In that respect, Carlo Ancelotti is the man. He has managed at the top level and knows what it takes to win knockout competitions. There is no more suitable candidate at the moment.

LUCA: I don’t think Di Biagio is the long-term solution. Given the enormity of the task that lies ahead, for me the most suitable and realistic immediate option is Ancelotti. The FIGC need to be doing all they can to persuade Carletto that the Italy job still holds the prestige that induced Conte to take the role despite being at the peak of his coaching powers. Ancelotti would not only bring a wealth of experience and tactical nous, but his quiet leadership style would help restore confidence and nurture Italy’s youngsters, upon whom much responsibility falls after recent failures. Carletto is the wise old captain required to guide the Azzurri through these stormy waters.

BLAIR: I’m not sure Di Biagio is the right person for the job at this moment. While he has experience working with the new generation, I wasn’t hugely convinced by the way his U21 side played whenever I watched them. To be honest I don’t think there is an obvious option out there, so I’ll probably change my mind on this in a matter of weeks! At this precise moment, I feel someone like Vincenzo Montella would be a good call. He’s not tied to his systems in the way others are; he’s not dogmatic. Also, as he showed at Milan, he’s always willing to give young players a chance. I think those traits will be important when it comes to re-building the national team.

EMMET: I wrote about this recently, the only logical choice is Ancelotti. What’s really left for him at club level? He’s managed most of the biggest clubs in the world, bar Barcelona and Manchester United. He’s won more Champions Leagues than any manager alive, he’s little left to prove. The international arena would be perfect for him, he’s a cup specialist, knowing how to maximise players for short bursts of excellence rather than the marathon of a league. And he would command respect from every Italian player, something Ventura couldn’t gain because he hadn’t won anything as a manager. It simply has to be cuddly Carlo, no other option is worthy.

Name three players who you feel will be integral in leading Italy to the next available tournament – Euro 2020. Why will they be integral?

EMMET: Marco Verratti, granted he leaves the glass ceiling of PSG and moves to a bigger institution that will help develop his abilities. When he’s on form, there aren’t many better in Europe.

Belotti. Personally I’m a big fan of Il Gallo. But much like Verratti, needs to leave Torino to grow. Reminds me a little of Bobo Vieri.

Insigne. It boggles my mind how Ventura gave him less than 20 minutes across both play-off games against Sweden. He’s one of Italy’s most creative outlets, which again, speaks to the relatively dire state of the country’s ability to produce No.10s, as 20 years ago he wouldn’t have got near an Azzurri squad. Whoever is named as the next CT simply has to integrate the Napoli man from the get go, implement a 4-3-3 to get the best from him. He’s a match winner when at his very best.

NEIL: It’s hard to look beyond Jorginho as the one who will be pulling the strings in the midfield for many years to come. And if you pick him, you have to include Insigne, who is perhaps Italy’s most creative player at the moment. If those two can take bring their club form to the national team, you have a very exciting base to build on. At the back. I expect Caldara to emerge, alongside Rugani, as a crucial part of what should soon be a new-look Azzurri defence in 2020.

LUCA: Jorginho, Insigne and Rugani. For me, Jorginho can become Italy’s next great midfield conductor. Unfortunately, in large part due to injury, Veratti has thus far failed to deliver in this department and Italy have sorely missed a regista since Pirlo retired. But in Jorginho, the Azzurri have one of Europe’s in-form playmakers and his understanding with club mate Insigne could be crucial to Italy’s attempts to rebuild.

When I look at a player like Insigne, he is one of the few senior squad members who is a genuine flair player. Since the retirement of Totti, Del Piero and dare I say it, Cassano, Italy have also lacked a fantasista. Insigne could fulfil this role, much like he has been doing at Napoli.

Finally, the great Italian sides have always been built upon solid foundations. I could have chosen Donnarumma as Buffon’s heir, but I have gone for Rugani because I see him stepping into the role of Chiellini and becoming Juve and Italy’s next defensive leader.

BLAIR: Most great national teams are built on great club sides, and Italy should be built on Napoli. That means playing a 4-3-3 system, pressing more aggressively than in the past, and looking to dominate using the ball. Italy have the players to do this. Jorginho is the beating heart of Napoli’s possession game, so it’s a must that he starts in the deep-lying midfield role. His accuracy, vision and positional awareness have the potential to completely alter the national team’s game. Alongside him I think Italy need Verratti to step up, especially if this new style is to work. Meanwhile, Belotti must show that he is no one-season wonder and that he can lead the line for Italy going forward. I think he can overcome a poor 2017/18 season and reassert himself as the man to start up front.